How to Enroll
Free public education in New York City begins at age 4 for most children. Every 4-year-old is guaranteed a seat either in a regular public school or in a private childcare center, religious school, or commmunity center.
Unlike kindergarten, children in pre-kindergarten are not guaranteed a seat in their zoned neighborhood school. In fact, less than 50 percent of the pre-k seats are in public school buildings.
Some very popular schools may have hundreds of applicants for a handful of seats. These typically only accept siblings of children who are already enrolled.
Programs for 3-year-olds, called 3-K, are available in some school districts (1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 14, 16, 19, 23, 27, 29, 31 and 32) that encompass neighborhoods including the South Bronx, Central Harlem, East Harlem and Washington Heights in Manhattan, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, East New York and Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn, Southeast Queens and Staten Island.
Who may attend
Any child who lives in New York City and turns 4 before Dec. 31 is entitled to attend pre-kindergarten that year; that is, a child with a fall birthday may start school in September when he is still 3. Most children attend pre-kindergarten 6 hours and 20 minutes a day, 180 days a year—the same schedule as older children. Each class has two adults and 18 children.
The city has a limited number of seats for 3-year-olds. The school day and year are the same as for pre-k. Children who turn 3 before Dec. 31 may apply. Children do not have to be toilet trained. Each class has two adults and 15 children.
How to apply to pre-k
You may apply online or by telephone: (718) 935-2009. Application deadlines change from year to year. The 2021 application deadline for pre-k is April 7; for 3-K the deadline is April 30. You'll find out your placement later in the spring.
It doesn't hurt to apply to a program where space is tight if you love it: If you're not matched in this application round, your name will be automatically put on a waitlist for all the choices you listed above the one you got. You may call the school to let them know you are interested. Be polite, persistent and patient. Spaces frequently open up in the summer or even in the fall.
If you miss the first deadline, or move to the city after the application process is complete, contact a Family Welcome Center, or telephone (718) 935-2009.
Once your child is matched with a pre-k program, you will need to go to the school to register. You will need to show the child’s birth certificate or passport, immunization records, and proof of residence. You do not need a green card or a social security number but you do need a document with your address on it, such as a lease or a recent gas and electric bill.
What to Look For
Choosing a pre-k requires lots of research. We’ve produced the video above as well as these tips to help you.
First, consider whether you prefer a pre-k in a public school—typically open from 8:30 am to 2:30 pm for 180 days are year—or one housed in a community organization or childcare center. Some of these are open year-round from 8 am to 6 pm.
We found that public schools that are solid overall tend to have good pre-k classes. But we also found that some schools have terrific pre-k classes, even if the rest of the school isn't great. Many have bathrooms right in the classroom, playgrounds just for the little kids and experienced teachers.
It’s a good idea to visit schools before you fill out your application. Most schools give tours. Beware of those that don’t. You want a school that’s welcoming to parents.
Close to home is best. Little kids tire easily, and a long commute to school will be difficult, particularly in the winter. Still, some parents find good programs near their work, or near a relative or babysitter who can pick up their children after school.
Look for signs of attention and care, and watch out for neglect—dusty shelves, torn books and dying plants. Is there a fenced-in playground and a front door greeter? Look for a bathroom in the room or no more than three doors away. Check for exposed extension cords and outlets. You can find information on safety and cleanliness by checking out the inspection history of pre-k sites online.
A good pre-k teacher should be talking to kids and listening to them, repeating back words and using full sentences—upping the ante when it comes to language. They should be able to maintain a predictable routine to help kids feel safe and secure. In pre-k, children need to learn to get along with other children and to follow classroom routines.
You can tell a lot from the moment you step inside a building. Does someone greet you? Is there information for parents on display, and a place to sit and wait? Parents should be invited to take part in the life of the school, whether it's attending an event, taking care of the class pet over the holiday or volunteering to read to the class.
You want someone who is approachable and easy-to-find, not hidden behind a door. A strong leader brings out the best in each member of the school community. The principal or director should either know something about early childhood or be in communication with an expert in the building.
Look for children's work on display, not decorations made by the teacher. Ideally, the work should show individual creativity. You don't want to see lots of fill-in-the-blank worksheets, but kids may be beginning to draw, write letters or sound out words and label their pictures. Are there science explorations—like drawings of leaves or a graph to show how many seeds are in an apple?
An exciting, orderly classroom
Good pre-k's have fun-to-read books and objects organized in baskets on shelves to help children investigate patterns, numbers and shapes. Look for classrooms with live animals, LEGOs, water tables, plants and fish tanks to spark curiosity. Tables and rugs give kids choices of where to work. Children this age need opportunities to talk to one another and to grown-ups—more than they need pencil and paper exercises. They should create their own stories in their own words in a dress-up corner or a play kitchen. They should learn words like “bigger” and “smaller” and “above” and “below” when they build towers in the block corner.
A well-balanced day
Often you will see a schedule of the day posted on the wall. Look for a routine with a mix of active and quiet activities. There should be a time to rest in full-day programs but not enforced naptime. Kids need time to play outside every day, and time to explore, often called "choice" or "center" time. All pre-k children eat lunch in the classroom, "family style," where they can chat with friends and practice good manners.
Opportunities to be independent
Good teachers foster independence. They help kids learn to hang up their own coats, prepare and serve breakfast or lunch, clean up after themselves, and put on their own shoes. Good pre-k's often label objects so kids can begin to pair objects and words, and provide them with step-by-step pictures for procedures like hand washing, to instill good habits and pride in accomplishment.
The city doesn't have room in its neighborhood schools for all the city's 4-year-olds. To create more seats, it contracts with child-care centers, private nursery schools, religious schools and community centers. In addition, the city has established freestanding "pre-k centers," which children attend for just one year.
While some ordinary neighborhood schools have pre-kindergarten, the bulk of seats are in these other locations. Your child is guaranteed a seat somewhere but there is no guarantee you will get your first choice. No transportation is provided (except for children with special needs and those in temporary housing).
Child-care centers are designed for working parents and are open year-round, usually from 8 am to 6 pm. The city pays for 6 hours and 20 minutes, 180 days a year, the same as the public school calendar. Parents must pay for the remaining hours; however the cost is much less than at centers that do not participate in public pre-k programs. Also called Early Childhood Centers, these tend to have more experience caring for young children than elementary schools and may have more flexibility in routines. For example, a child who is tired may be permitted to nap rather than take part in an activity. Some child-care centers charge parents on a sliding scale depending on their income; some limit enrollment to low-income families.
Head Start Centers, part of the 50-year-old federal anti-poverty program, give priority to low-income families. The hours tend to be longer than an ordinary public school but shorter than child-care centers. The Head Start programs we have visited are of high quality.
Private and religious schools sometimes contract with the city to offer free pre-k classes. To meet the city's requirements for separation of church and state, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim schools do not offer religious instruction during the hours of public pre-k. However, they may offer religious instruction outside those hours. Some of the private preschools give preference to children who are already enrolled in their classes for 3-year-olds; so if you are applying for one of those pre-k spots for the first time when your child is 4, you may be out of luck.
Charter schools offer pre-k in some cases. Contact the schools directly or fill out the online application at http://www.nyccharterschools.org.
Public elementary schools offer pre-k if they have room. The most popular and overcrowded elementary schools simply don’t have space; some may have just 18 pre-k seats and more than 100 kindergarten seats.
Pre-k Centers were set up by the Department of Education as a way to expand the number of seats available in school districts that had little room in their ordinary public schools. Some of these are housed in a leased space; some are housed in new public school buildings that are not yet at full capacity. They have as many as 10 pre-k classes in one location, and children stay at these schools for just one year. The pre-k centers we have visited are of high quality. Their teachers are certified and regular employees of the Department of Education.